The former boxer, journalist and popular TV presenter Yair Lapid achieved last week what he had been aiming for 10 years when he made the ultimate leap into the Israeli political scene on the back of his Yesh Atid (in English, There is a Future) platform: the office of Prime Minister. His relatively quick rise to power has not been easy. Along the way, Lapid has twice had to cede leadership to maintain credibility. First, that of the Blue and White party to former general Benny Gantz; then that of the government to settler Naftali Bennett, whom he had four times as many seats in the Knesset.
The centrist leader took office a year after weaving an unprecedented coalition government in Hebrew history. Up to eight parties made up the cabinet, ranging from the Labour left to the Zionist right, including Mansour Abbas's Arab Islamist Ra'am, the first Israeli Arab force to break into the institutions. The divisions in Bennett's Yamina party broke the parliamentary majority, but secured Lapid the post of Prime Minister under the agreement signed with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's old ally.
In his first official speech as head of government, the centrist addressed the nation with two aims: to outline his image as a statesman and to advocate "a Jewish, democratic, liberal, strong, advanced and prosperous Israel" that would put an end to the long history of extremism, polarisation and hatred: "We believe that, as long as security needs are met, Israel is a country that seeks peace and reaches out to all peoples of the Middle East, including the Palestinians".
"The State of Israel is bigger than any of us. More important than any of us. It was here before us, it will be here long after us. It does not belong to us alone. It belongs both to those who dreamed of it for thousands of years in the Diaspora and to those who have not yet been born, to future generations," Lapid said. "The State of Israel, Israelis, are better. There is a sense and imagination and powers that are unparalleled."
The acting Prime Minister revealed that in his Knesset office "two pictures hang side by side: David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin. Two bitter political rivals, but also the two most important Prime Ministers we have ever had. They always fought, but they also always remembered that they had the same goal: to build the power and moral image of the State of Israel," and called for unity: "Disagreement is not necessarily a bad thing as long as it does not undermine our governmental stability and our internal resilience".
Lapid launched several veiled criticisms in his speech of opposition leader Benjamin 'Bibi' Netanyahu, Israel's most influential politician who has served as Prime Minister for 15 years, 12 uninterrupted until the coalition government ousted him in June 2021. "The political sphere has become increasingly extreme, violent and vicious, dragging society down with it," said Lapid, who made his debut in institutional politics as Finance Minister in a 'Bibi' government.
The interim Prime Minister will combine the leadership of the government with the Foreign Ministry, which he has held until 1 November, the date on which the fourth elections in less than four years are scheduled to take place. Holding the post until autumn could be a differential advantage for Lapid in the run-up to the elections. The centrist can use the trump card of institutionalism to unseat Netanyahu, but at the same time he has little room for manoeuvre to push through new measures in a context of inflation and rising living costs. The security situation is also delicate as a result of recent skirmishes between Israel and Iran, the latter with the support of its pro-Israeli militias.
The period between now and the elections could end up being too long for Lapid if he does not get it right. ''Bibi'' will be able to exploit social discontent, which is beginning to emerge in a context of global crisis and constant security threats. For this reason, the centrist is trying to maintain a sober and solvent profile, and thus project an image of firmness against Tehran and the rest of its regional enemies, as Israel's longest-serving Prime Minister Netanyahu, involved in serious corruption cases for which he is currently on trial, used to do.
The path that Lapid, 58, seems to have chosen is one of consensus and moderation, as has been his customary path. The post-election scenario could force both candidates to form unusual majorities with unusual blocs in the heat of the country's prolonged political deadlock, such as the one that led to the formation of the last government. The divisive figure of Netanyahu could be a determining factor in the eventual victory of the interim Prime Minister, who could win the support of the anti-'Bibi' faction.
The sharp rivalry, however, has not prevented the centrist from extending a formal invitation by correspondence to the opposition leader to share intelligence gathered by the Mossad and security forces: 'In accordance with the Knesset (Parliament) Law, I would like to invite you as soon as possible to an update meeting on the national issues that are on the agenda'. But Bibi's entourage rejected the proposal outright.
The spokesman for Likud, the conservative leader's political party, said that the former Prime Minister wanted to obtain the legally required security updates from Lapid's military secretary, but without his presence in order to "prevent the security briefing from becoming a political tool before the elections". Analysts suggest that the background to the decision is image concerns of 'Bibi', who does not want to be photographed with Lapid from a position of inferiority.